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#BringBackOurGirls- Doing Nothing as ‘Activism’

May 12, 2014

I really don’t want to write this post. I hate being a feminist or critical killjoy- especially when it comes to issues that seem to unite, motivate, and inspire large groups of people. We all need to feel inspired- like we are doing something good for the world. On Sunday I saw a small group of teenage girls wearing red and holding signs that read #BringBackOurGirls. It was sort of sweet to see them so clearly excited to be part of something- to be DOING SOMETHING. Activism is supposed to be political activity aimed at changing or influencing events. But what are the politics of #BringBackOurGirls and does #BringBackOurGirls DO anything?  Let’s start with a few more important questions:

1. To whom is #BringBackOurGirls directed? President Goodluck Jonathan? President Obama? The Nigerian military? Holding a sign in a shopping center on a Sunday is a nice activity for feeling part of ‘something’- but flashing a sign with a hash tag in such a setting feels more like a Western conversation with ourselves. A feel-good exercise, rather than political activism.

2. Who is the ‘our’ in this tag? ‘Our girls’ implies ownership rather than solidarity. What motivates this paternalistic feeling that ‘we’ can/should ‘save’ ‘our’ girls? In his article ‘What’s Wrong with the Well-Intentioned Boko Haram Coverage‘, Arit John argues “[o]ur coverage has reflected the oversimplified and paternalistic narrative western countries have of Africa, a narrative that underestimates the damage of colonialism and overestimates the ability of those former colonizers to help at the same time.” He notes the White Savoir motif throughout the coverage- from the reporting that American filmmaker Ramaa Mosley was responsible for the tag (compared to claims it was initiated by a South African activist) , to NBC’s Brian Williams confusing report that the girls were in Kenya, rather than Nigeria. John argues this perpetuates a general Western perception of vague and perpetual problems in Africa that require Western intervention.

3. By what means should the girls be ‘brought back?’ The Nigerian Government has already noted that it will consider “all options” necessary to secure the girls’ release and several countries have lent support towards the effort, including the US, Israel, France, and Britain. In a recent Guardian article, Jumoke Balogun argued that the hash tag has compromised democracy and merely supported the miltiarization of Nigeria and the increase of US troops across the African continent: “…the United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa. Africom … gained much from #KONY2012 and will now gain even more from #BringBackOurGirls.”

4. Why did it take 9 days for the story, and then the hash tag, to gain traction globally? Miranda Neubauer provides a great graph of the timeline of #BringBackOurGirls– as compared to #chibokgirls and #bringbackourdaughters. Compared to #kony2012 (which, coincidentally hasn’t DONE much), or the social media response to the disappearance to Flight 370, the response to the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls was relatively apathetic and slow at first. Why the delayed enthusiasm?

The point here is not to provide a complete gender and post-colonial critique of #BringBackOurGirls, it is really to pose some questions that I hope those retweeting the letters ask themselves. Words should MEAN something. Activism should be about DOING something that will promote peace rather than legitimize Western imperialism and further military expansion.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.